In Howard County, it is a familiar pattern of seduction.
The refugees from more urban areas catch a glimpse of rural Howard's tranquillity -- its rolling farmland, placid valleys and winding, two-lane roads -- and they just have to find a way to call it theirs.
That's what brought waves of migrants to Ellicott City and Columbia over the last three decades, newcomers who brought with them much of what they were fleeing: rows of townhouses, traffic jams, shopping strips, crowded schools, crime, pollution, noise.
And now the congestion of eastern Howard and the other suburbs of Baltimore and Washington has triggered another quest for untouched parcels of peace and quiet, a search that's turned its voracious eye toward the largely rural western half of Howard.
The result: Western Howard, one of the last bastions of rural life in the booming Baltimore-Washington corridor, is under heavy pressure to succumb to advancing development.
"Used to be that you could ride horses across the county," says Chip Ridgely, 29, of Cooksville, one of Howard's dwindling number of farmers.
"Now you can't do that. It's going to be just like Montgomery County," he said.
County officials expect western Howard's population to grow 60 percent in the next 10 years, while more urbanized eastern Howard is predicted to grow just 22 percent.
By 2020, planners say, western Howard's population will soar from about 28,000 to about 70,000 -- a total just short of Columbia's population today.
At stake in this rush to western Howard is not only the further fading of farm life, but also incalculable wealth from some of the last large parcels of undeveloped land in this fast-growing region. The cost of a 3-acre lot in western Howard has almost doubled in the last decade to more than $120,000.
Accordingly, Howard's political scene increasingly involves bitter debates over land use decisions and the rules by which they're made.
Over the strong opposition of Howard's political establishment, county voters last fall passed a sweeping referendum, Question B, giving residents veto power over most of the county's major land use decisions. Now there's a running battle -- likely to end up in court -- over how to rewrite county regulations in line with this measure.
Development in Howard often comes cloaked in careful planning, proposals for planned communities that would mimic Columbia's renowned balance of homes, businesses and green space. But every successful proposal represents the westward march of the line separating rural Howard from its more urbanized, eastern half. The official limit of urban development in the county is the western edge of something bureaucrats call the Planned Service Boundary. To its east are sewers and public water lines. To its west, septic tanks and wells.
This urban-rural boundary is irregular at best. Starting in Fulton in the south, it skirts Columbia's western edge before thrusting westward to make room for Waverly Woods II -- a planned Columbia-style community of 1,000 homes and 1 million square feet of commercial property being built in Marriottsville.
Just about every zig or zag in the line represents a group of residents who fought to keep the line to the east or developers and farmers who fought to push it west.
These development battles often are self-sustaining. The more intense the land development, the more new residents seeking peace and quiet can be accommodated. The more they move in, the more opposition to development grows.
In the process, some earlier migrants who moved beyond urban Howard's boundaries now find their rural respites encircled or leapfrogged by suburbia and all its trappings.
Silas Sines moved to Fulton in southern Howard in 1979 for its rural delights. His front door faces a small field framed by deer-inhabited woods. "We watch the farmer plant the corn, and we see him fertilize it and harvest it," Mr. Sines, 52, says.
But his property is hard by what county planners envision will be a new suburban subcity with apartments and houses radiating out from a shopping center, offices and perhaps some light industry. It is a vision that seeks to match Columbia's cohesiveness, but it doesn't suit those living in Fulton who expect increased traffic, noise and crime.
"It would be nice if the county would listen to the residents, but that's kind of far-fetched," Mr. Sines' wife, Bonnie, says bitterly.
The central irony of such development disputes is that it's often relative newcomers living next to farmers -- not longtime farmers themselves -- who most passionately oppose restrictions on developing western Howard.
While the Sineses and many others don't want to see western Howard's tractors and cornstalks replaced by Volvos and basketball hoops, many farmers fear being forced to sacrifice their most valuable asset -- their land's development potential -- to government restrictions.